Book #40: The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter
What were you doing when you were 23?
Me? I was flailing around out west, burning gas and running up credit card debt, trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life.
Carson McCullers? She was writing a literary masterpiece that is considered by most critics to be one of the top novels of the 20th Century. Man, we were such slackers at 23.
While she was writing, McCullers came up with a perfect title for this novel. You couldn’t describe these characters any more accurately than by saying “The heart is a lonely hunter.”
Though the title might sound like a cheesy romance novel, at least that’s what I thought initially, the book is actually appropriately named.
These are lonely, lonely people—crammed together in small-town Georgia. If ever there was a character-driven novel, The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter is it.
They are all searching for something, some type of hope or fulfillment, and looking for it in other people. In the end, the novel shows that if all of your hope and security rests in another person, you’ll eventually get let down.
This isn’t necessarily a forward moving, point a to point b plot-driven novel. The book has plot, yes, but it’s really more of a study of five or six characters and their internal struggles—of which they have many.
So I think the best way to dig into this book, and to give you an idea of what it’s all about, is to go through the main characters.
John Singer: Mr. Singer is a deaf mute who becomes a god-like figure to the other main characters in the novel. They all gravitate toward him, projecting their wants and needs and insecurities. He’s basically a sounding board, a troubled man who, to them, seems deeply interested in their lives, simply because he can’t tell them how crazy they are. Singer has an obsession, possibly romantic, with an unhealthy, slightly crazy deaf mute guy, and that is eventually his undoing.
Dr. Copeland: A small-time African-American doctor who treats other African-Americans in this small town. He’s a tortured, angry man, upset about the way his race has been treated and eager to “mobilize the masses” based on Communist principles. His anger and indignation are mostly hot air, as he never really acts upon his principles.
Mick Kelly: She’s an awkward, tall, gangly 13-year-old girl who reminds me a little of Scout Finch from To Kill A Mockingbird. She dreams of being a musician, and she has a crush on John Singer. With a poor family, she’s left to take care of her younger siblings. I love this passage that sums up Mick’s state of mind, but it could also represent any of the characters:
Mick frowned and rubbed her fist hard across her forehead. That was the way things were. It was like she was mad all the time. Not how a kid gets mad quick so that soon it is all over–but in another way. Only there was nothing to be mad at. Unless the store. But the store hadn’t asked her to take the job. So there was nothing to be mad at. It was like she was cheated. Only nobody cheated her. So there was nobody to take it out on. However, just the same she had that feeling. Cheated.
Jake Blount: The crazy, obese, alcoholic Communist guy who will literally shout his opinions to anyone who listens. Definitely the most annoying and preachy character in the book. To his credit, though, he takes a job at a local fair and tries to make a living. Even as an addict, he has a sense of responsibility.
Biff Brannon: He owns the New York Café, a small, grimey dinner that is a hangout for the locals, including the main characters mentioned above. Biff is a sad soul, a widower, who is one of the few characters not obsessed with Singer—instead, he’s got a bit of Humbert Humbert streak in him as he’s obsessed with Mick. Fortunately, he leaves those feelings undisclosed.
As you can probably guess from the title, the reoccurring theme here is loneliness and desperation. Even for the youngest of the bunch, Mick Kelly, there’s a sense of hopelessness. You feel as if she’s being sucked into a culture and a way of life that she can’t get out of.
Her dreams of being a musician in a great symphony grow dimmer as her family’s financial situation worsens. At 14, she takes a job at Woolworth’s to help make money—and you get the sense that this is just the way it is.
As I mentioned last week, the novel reminds me of Native Son, in a bad way. Two of the characters, Blount and Copeland, are too preachy. In my meager opinion, McCullers crosses the line with these characters.
I didn’t get the feeling, in some cases, that the characters were talking. I felt more like it was McCullers talking. And that’s never good.
That said, her writing is lively. Most of the characters have a southern dialect that is just right—enough to let you know where they’re from without seeming comical ( i.e. Gone With The Wind).
McCullers’ strength, more than her writing, is her ability to build a world of characters which you grow to care about. She really develops all of five of these main characters, and even some secondary players.
For a guy who leans more to plot-driven novels, even I appreciated this one. She’s also unbelievable at scattering “sentence bombs” throughout the text. That will keep you on your toes.
One last thought: I’m not sure why, but The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter reminded me of To Kill A Mockingbird in some ways.
It’s definitely a darker, more somber book, but just the general feel of the time and place and the culture—and even Mick Kelly reminded me a little of a slightly older Scout Finch.
Since The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter was published 20 years prior to TKAM, maybe it’s the other way around. But you get my point: I see some similarities.
In all, great book. It’s bleak, but so is every other novel on this list. The novel is light on plot but heavy on character development. If you’re cool with that, you’ll probably enjoy The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter.
The Opening Line: “In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together.”
The Meaning: The title is self-explanatory once you read the book. All of these characters are lonely and searching for something—mainly in other people. The idea being that if you put all your hope and security in one person, you’re eventually going to be let down.
Highlights: Fully developed, lively characters. These are some of the most well-crafted characters I’ve encountered. Carson McCullers was brilliant at creating characters and a world you care about.
Lowlights: On the flip side of the developed characters is the light plot. Typically, this would bother me, but I actually enjoyed the book, despite the fact that “not much was going on.”
Memorable Line: “The most fatal thing a man can do is try to stand alone.” -Dr. Copeland
Final Thoughts: The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter is a memorable novel. I’m not entirely sure how to rank it. I love these characters and the world Carson McCullers created for them to live in. It’s just a beautiful book.